Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Reasons for optimism
A usual pitfall for a columnist as he looks back on a year is to embrace doom and gloom. The good parts are easily forgotten while the bad, the stupid and the incompetent tend to stick in the mind forever. For once, though, I will start the year in upbeat fashion with ten pleasant surprises from Dutch football in 2010.
1. Bizarro Match: Any World Cup is about who beats Brazil, the big favorites. Given our history, meeting Brazil usually meant the end of the tournament, whatever form Netherlands were in. When news filtered through that the clubless Andre Ooijer had to replace Joris Mathijsen, my heart sank and it reached its lowest ebb during the first half. In a recent interview, Mark van Bommel confessed that the team defended at 1-0 down, just to be in with a shout for the second half. After the lucky equaliser, Brazil collapsed as the Dutch dominated the game with unusual grit and determination. To complete this 'Bizarro Match', wee Wesley Sneijder headed the winner from a corner.
2. New Kids on the Block: Despite losing Eljero Elia, Edson Braafheid and Marko Arnautovic, FC Twente managed to improve on their second spot in 2009, becoming champions for the first time. Six years after a flirtation with bankrupcy, the club is now an example to many, if not all, clubs in Europe as they celebrate their success debt-free. FC Twente have cultivated their regional roots and have taken a lead in social activities. Don't be surprised if they qualify for the Champions League again next year.
3. European delight: On May 16, FC Utrecht won the play-offs and two months later they started in the second qualifying round. FK Tirana were easy, then they breezed past Swiss league leaders FC Luzern, to their own surprise. Losing 2-0 at Celtic would surely mean the end of the adventure. I worked at the stadium on the day of the return leg, and the next day's first-round Europa League draw was only mentioned in jest. At the end of the day, everyone was stunned with the 4-0 win and qualification. Keeping Liverpool to a draw twice was the icing on the cake. Another club that is going places.
4. A farewell in style: When Gio van Bronckhorst announced his farewell for the summer of 2010, there was little uproar. He had not added much to Feyenoord in his final years, while he only held his place as an international due to a lack of competitors at left back. Yet, at the World Cup, he benefited from the defensive qualities in the Dutch midfield and even scored arguably the goal of the tournament with his belter in the semi-final against Uruguay.
5. The No. 1 in Rotterdam: Excelsior's last incoming transfer was in 1990. They have survived as a feeder club for Feyenoord and with some smart free transfers. With a dramatic extra-time winner they took neighbours Sparta's place in the Eredivisie by surprise, but were No. 1 on everyone's relegation list. While probably paying their complete squad for the salary that keeps Luis Suarez at Ajax, Excelsior started with ten points from six, including a home win over Feyenoord. Coach Alex Pastoor has found some success from set pieces, while the team battles until the final whistle. Unlike their big brother a few miles south.
6. Mood of the Feyenoord fans: Much went wrong in De Kuip, where the money today is too tight to mention. The club is now without their older, expensive players, like Roy Makaay and Danny Landzaat. What's left is a young team that usually rolls over once it goes behind. Never more so than in Eindhoven where PSV strolled to a 10-0 win. Yet, the following Wednesday during the crucial home game against VVV-Venlo, 40,000 fans turned up to show their undying love for the club. No whistles and few jeers. They try to stick together, in good times and in bad.
7. Phoenix from the flames: In the spring of 2009, FC Eindhoven received a letter from the Dutch FA detailing a request to withdraw from pro-football as the club had no future. The board fought to finance another season and reach its centennial in November. At the start of that month, FC Eindhoven were still languishing at the bottom, but that proved to be the turning point. They reached the play-offs, then outplayed and could have relegated Willem II with a little more chutzpah. This season Eindhoven, the team of my youth, lost only three games and have anchored themselves in the top five of the Eerste Divisie for the first time in 30 years. A new stadium is also on the drawing board.
8. Number two in the world: The Dutch team were vilified for not playing in their usual attractive, amusing, inefficient and doomed style during the World Cup. After a long while a Dutch coach managed to bring team spirit and focus into the squad. The players love to play for the national team, which is another difference from the past. Maybe the Dutch were too result-driven in South Africa, but is this not a trend in world football? May we not adjust for once? This season Bert van Marwijk's team continued with a great performance against Sweden, even without stars like Robben and Van Persie. Second in FIFA's world rankings says it all.
9. Dutch players still shine abroad: One of the most successful export products from the Netherlands is 'the football player'. Wesley Sneijder was the piece of the puzzle Inter were looking for to win the Champions League, while Arjen Robben almost single-handedly helped Bayern Munich into that final and to another German title. Spurs are delighted with Rafael van der Vaart, who may given them a shot at the Premier League title.
10. Shifting powers in the Eredivisie: With AZ last year, and now FC Twente as champions the Dutch league has proved to no longer be a two-horse race between Ajax and PSV with the occasional interference of Feyenoord. This year, even FC Groningen have been in the fray and look an outside bet as next May's winners.